URC Daily Devotions Service for Good Friday 2022 – The Revd. Dr John Bradbury

Order of Service

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Daily Devotions from the United Reformed Church
Worship for Good Friday 2022
 
The Rev’d Dr John Bradbury
General Secretary of the United Reformed Church
 
Call to Worship
 
God so loved the world that he gave his own dearly beloved Son so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have everlasting life.  On this day of remembrance and hope, we declare with joy: God did not send his Son into the world  to condemn the world, but to save it.
 
Hymn       There Is A Green Hill Far Away                
Cecil Frances Alexander (1818-1895)
 
There is a green hill far away,
outside a city wall,
where the dear Lord was crucified,
who died to save us all.
 
2  We may not know, we cannot tell
what pains he had to bear;
but we believe it was for us
he hung and suffered there.
 
3 He died that we might be forgiven,
he died to make us good,
that we might go at last to heaven,
saved by his precious blood.
 
4 There was no other good enough
to pay the price of sin;
he only could unlock the gate
of heaven, and let us in.
 
5  Oh, dearly, dearly has he loved,
and we must love him too,
and trust in his redeeming blood,
and try his works to do.
 
Opening Prayer
 
O crucified Jesus, Son of the Father,
conceived by the Holy Spirit,
born of the virgin Mary,
eternal Word of God, we worship you.
O crucified Jesus,
holy temple of God,
dwelling place of the most High,
gate of heaven, burning flame of love,
we worship you.

O crucified Jesus,
sanctuary of justice and love,
full of kindness, source of all faithfulness,
we worship you.
 
O crucified Jesus,
ruler of every heart,
in you are the treasures
of wisdom and knowledge,
in you dwells all the fullness of the Godhead,
we worship you.
 
Jesus, Lamb of God,  have mercy on us.
Jesus, bearer of our sins,  have mercy on us.
Jesus, redeemer of the world,  grant us peace.
 
Silence
 
Almighty God, look with mercy on your family
for whom our Lord Jesus Christ
was willing to be betrayed
and to be given over to the hands of sinners
and to suffer death on the cross;
through him who now lives and reigns
with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and forever. Amen.
 
Reading   St Luke 23: 13-25
 
Pilate then called together the chief priests, the leaders, and the people,  and said to them, ‘You brought me this man as one who was perverting the people; and here I have examined him in your presence and have not found this man guilty of any of your charges against him. Neither has Herod, for he sent him back to us. Indeed, he has done nothing to deserve death.  I will therefore have him flogged and release him.’
 
Then they all shouted out together, ‘Away with this fellow! Release Barabbas for us!’  (This was a man who had been put in prison for an insurrection that had taken place in the city, and for murder.)  Pilate, wanting to release Jesus, addressed them again;  but they kept shouting, ‘Crucify, crucify him!’  A third time he said to them, ‘Why, what evil has he done? I have found in him no ground for the sentence of death; I will therefore have him flogged and then release him.’  But they kept urgently demanding with loud shouts that he should be crucified; and their voices prevailed. So Pilate gave his verdict that their demand should be granted.  He released the man they asked for, the one who had been put in prison for insurrection and murder, and he handed Jesus over as they wished.
 
Refection   He has done nothing to deserve death
 
Luke is deeply aware of the context in which his story unfolds. It is a context of Empire. Of high politics, and high religion. We see Jesus shipped from pillar to post and back again. He starts with the Assembly of the Elders, seemingly the Assembly of the chief priests and the scribes – the religious authorities. They are looking for a reason to get him out of the way. For he was stirring up the people. Perhaps they thought that he was going to take away their authority – for he was one who seemed to teach as if with some kind of naturally endowed authority. They are looking to trick him. “Are you the Son of God?”, they ask. “You say that I am”, he replies.
 
From here he is shipped to Pilate – the chief official of the Roman Empire, the occupying force of the region. A brutal empire – that will brook no opposition to its rule. With deep double standards – justice for its own citizens in a legal system that still influences our own, but for those not Roman citizens, life could be brutal.
 
The accusation of treason is so easy to bandy about, is it not? We hear it fairly regularly in our own troubled political times. “We found this man perverting our nation”, the Council protest to the representative of the occupying forces. Forbidding the paying of taxes to the emperor, even. But Pilate has some sense of justice within him, clearly. He’s not willing quite that quickly to take all of this at face value – ‘I find no basis for an accusation’, he says. Where upon the Council turn to that other thought, that sounds so familiar to our ears all these thousands of years later – the power of the crowd and popular opinion. ‘He stirs up the people’ – they claim. And the people must not be stirred up – heaven only knows what ideas might get into them.
 
So on again in this game of pillar to post – to Herod this time, the Israelite King, puppet, seemingly, of the Romans – but a sop to some kind of Israelite independence.  Herod is glad to meet this character he’s heard so much about. He sets about questioning Jesus. Not that Jesus has a lot to say for himself. Unlike the scribes and the chief priests, who stand there, vehemently accusing him.
 
Herod clearly was not quite sure what to do. He mocked and treated him with contempt – he was the only true king around here. And a fake kingly robe is placed upon Jesus, as he’s sent back to Pilate.
 
Pilate can find nothing wrong. Herod can find nothing wrong. This man is innocent of the charges brought against him? So how does he end up getting convicted? It’s a heady and toxic mix. Political and religious leaders whipping up the enthusiasm of the crowd, bandying around charges of treason. A political leadership weak, and perhaps a little uncertain of itself. Wanting, the quiet life more than justice. And then we have the crowd. Popular Opinion. ‘The Will of the People’, to use the more contemporary turn of phrase. And it is the will of the people, regardless of the evidence, regardless of the rights or wrongs of the case, regardless of justice or truth – they just want their pound of flesh. ‘Crucify him’. They shout. ‘Crucify him’. And Pilate gave in. Weak leaders often do. His standing amongst the crowd being more important than truth or justice. And so the crowd got it’s way. The sentence was passed.
 
And so it is, that it is in the interplay of worldly politics and religious fervour, that Jesus is condemned. Untruths whip up the people, and the will of the people must be done. And so it is. Jesus is condemned by powers that be very much like our own powers that be today. By crowds, people, in fact, very much like us.
 
Silence
 
Prayer
 
Loving God, we give you thanks and praise that Jesus was like us in every way, but without sin. That he put himself in the place of a sinner, condemned as a criminal, that we might be freed from sin and death.
 
We pray for those who administer justice and who wield power. Grant them wisdom and insight. May they resist the voices of popular opinion and seek only the true and the good. May they be upheld by your Spirit, that they might exercise servant leadership, like that of Christ.
 
We pray for those falsely accused and imprisoned, and we pray for those who seek justice on their behalf. Grant patience, perseverance and hope.
 
 Hymn       Ah, holy Jesus, how has thou offended?
Johann Heermann (1585-1647) based on Latin meditation, 11th century paraphrased Robert Bridges (1844-1930)
 
Ah, holy Jesus,  how hast thou offended
that we to judge thee hath in hate pretended?
By foes derided,  by thine own rejected,
O most afflicted!
 
2  Who was the guilty?
Who brought this upon thee?
Alas, my treason, Jesus, hath undone thee.
‘Twas I, Lord Jesus, I it was denied thee:
I crucified thee.
 
3  Lo, the good Shepherd for the sheep is offered;
the slave hath sinned, and the Son hath suffered;
for our atonement, while he nothing heeded,
God interceded.
 
4 For me, kind Jesus, was thine incarnation,
thy mortal sorrow, and thy life’s oblation;
thy death of anguish and thy bitter passion,
for my salvation.
 
5  Therefore, kind Jesus, since I cannot pay thee,
I do adore thee, and will ever pray thee,
think on thy mercy and thy love unswerving,
not my deserving.
 
Reading   St Luke 23: 26-43
 
As they led Jesus away, they seized a man, Simon of Cyrene, who was coming from the country, and they laid the cross on him, and made him carry it behind Jesus. A great number of the people followed him, and among them were women who were beating their breasts and wailing for him.  But Jesus turned to them and said, ‘Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me, but weep for yourselves and for your children.  For the days are surely coming when they will say, “Blessed are the barren, and the wombs that never bore, and the breasts that never nursed.”  Then they will begin to say to the mountains, “Fall on us”; and to the hills, “Cover us.”  For if they do this when the wood is green, what will happen when it is dry?’
 
Two others also, who were criminals, were led away to be put to death with him.  When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left.  Then Jesus said, ‘Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.’ And they cast lots to divide his clothing.  And the people stood by, watching; but the leaders scoffed at him, saying, ‘He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!’  The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine,  and saying, ‘If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!’  There was also an inscription over him, ‘This is the King of the Jews.’
 
One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, ‘Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!’  But the other rebuked him, saying, ‘Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation?  And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.’  Then he said, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’  He replied, ‘Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.’
 
Reflection   Today you will be with me in paradise
 
Amidst the great political actors, Luke’s story is also full of little, ordinary folk. Here we have Simon of Cyrene. We know nothing of him, except that he was forced to carry this cross for Jesus. It is the kind of thing that can happen in occupied empires – being randomly accosted to assist the occupying forces – even in execution. What did this Simon know of Jesus? Who knows. What did he think of this gruesome role he was given – a hand in an execution? Who knows. It tells us something about the state of Jesus, however. This is a weak man, after being dragged from pillar to post, and beaten and flogged. Mercy was not in the Roman disposition – or seemingly that of the religious leaders.
 
Even one of the criminals on the cross joins in with the taunting and the humiliation. “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us”. It is interesting that the Messiah was supposed to ‘save himself’ – there might be that strand of a sense of a military saviour who would liberate the people running through scripture, but there are other strands too. That of the suffering servant, who is humbled, and suffers for the sake of the people. But that, seemingly, was not the kind of Messiah that the people wanted. They wanted someone a little more worldly in their Kingship. What they got, was a king who moved from a donkey to a cross.
 
But yet there is a counterpoint to all of this. Another of those bit-parts in this story. The other criminal on his cross. This one speaks out for Jesus. This one recognises his own guilt. He deserves to be on his cross – as much as anyone can ever deserve to be on cross, I suppose. But he recognises that ‘This man has done nothing wrong’ – indicating to Jesus. Then that remarkable request, of a criminal in the midst of the sentence of death, the chaotic baying crowds below: “Jesus, remember me when you come into you Kingdom”. To which he get’s the most remarkable of responses: ‘Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise’. The innocent one to whom no mercy is shown, in his final moments, shows mercy to the guilty one next to him. Such is God’s way with the world. Such is God’s way with us.
 
Silence
 
Prayer
 
Loving God, we give you thanks for the people who wander into our lives only briefly, but who make a real difference. Those who have helped us bear our crosses. Those who have seen who we really are.
 
We give you thanks for the mercy of Christ – who offers us a place in paradise with him, even though we are guilty and he is innocent. For this great love beyond words, we thank you.
 
We pray for those facing death. Grant them peace. Grant them knowledge of your loving kindness. Grant them the ability to recognise their sin, and the hope we all share that Christ has created a place in paradise with him for us. Amen.
 
Hymn       O Sacred Head, Sore Wounded
Paul Gerhardt (1607-1676)
 

O sacred head, sore wounded,

defiled and put to scorn;
O kingly head, surrounded
with mocking crown of thorn:
what sorrow mars Thy grandeur?
Can death Thy bloom deflow’r?
O countenance whose splendour
the hosts of heav’en adore!
 
2 In Thy most bitter passion
my heart to share doth cry,
with Thee for my salvation
upon the cross to die.
Ah, keep my heart thus moved
to stand Thy Cross beneath,
to mourn Thee, well-beloved,
yet thank Thee for Thy death.

 

3   My days are few, O fail not,
with Thine immortal pow’r,
to hold me that I quail not
in death’s most fearful hour;
that I may fight befriended,
and see in my last strife
to me Thine arms extended
upon the Cross of life.


Reading   St Luke 23: 44-56
 
It was now about noon, and darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon,  while the sun’s light failed; and the curtain of the temple was torn in two.  Then Jesus, crying with a loud voice, said, ‘Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.’ Having said this, he breathed his last.  When the centurion saw what had taken place, he praised God and said, ‘Certainly this man was innocent.’  And when all the crowds who had gathered there for this spectacle saw what had taken place, they returned home, beating their breasts.  But all his acquaintances, including the women who had followed him from Galilee, stood at a distance, watching these things.
 
Now there was a good and righteous man named Joseph, who, though a member of the council,  had not agreed to their plan and action. He came from the Jewish town of Arimathea, and he was waiting expectantly for the kingdom of God.  This man went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus.  Then he took it down, wrapped it in a linen cloth, and laid it in a rock-hewn tomb where no one had ever been laid.  It was the day of Preparation, and the sabbath was beginning. The women who had come with him from Galilee followed, and they saw the tomb and how his body was laid.  Then they returned, and prepared spices and ointments. On the sabbath they rested according to the commandment.
 
Reflection        Father, into your hands
I commend my Spirit.
 
The sky turned dark from noon until three. The centurion present, noted that ‘Certainly this man was innocent’. The crowds ended up returning home beating their breasts. Presumably in sorrow. Presumably the crowds that only shortly before hand been shouting ‘Crucify’. And not long before that, ‘Hosanna’. Crowds are fickle.
 
And at the end, this remarkable cry from the cross: “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit’. What are we to make of this, at this extraordinary moment. The cry of a son to his Father? A cry of trust? A cry of hope?
 
A cry which takes us into, and even beyond, the very mysteries of the Trinity. One God, Father, son and Holy Spirit. At a moment when the experience of human death is taken up into the heart of the very Godhead. A moment when to all intents and purposes, to those standing at the foot of the cross, God is dead. Hope has died. The very blackest hour in the history of the universe.  
 
The son of God, God’s very self with us in the midst of the world, we put to death. We did not see him for what he was. He upset our religion. He upset our politics. He upset popular opinion. And because of weak and vacillating leaders, because of the injustice at the heart of a great Empire we killed him. The women looked on from afar, faithful to the last. The disciples had fled and abandoned him. And God was dead upon the cross.
 
Except. Except. Whilst those who lived through this most terrible of moments could never have known what was to come next, we do. The Spirit of Christ was indeed with the Father. The world might have rejected and killed God, but God was not dead. If such a sentence can ever make any sense at all. We know the end of the story – we know that the injustice, the inhumanity, the failed political and religious leaders, the abandonment of the disciples, and the denial of love ones, did not mark the end. But in that moment it did. At that moment, life in the world was as black as it has ever been. Perhaps you know something of that blackness. Perhaps you know something of what it is to be abandoned by loved ones. Perhaps you know something of what it is to face injustice. Perhaps you know something of political intrigue and turmoil. God does. For God experienced that cross in the humanity of Christ. Nowhere we might go, has Christ not been. No blackness we have experienced or can imagine, can be any blacker than this moment. We will return to this story in the days to come. For the story is not over. But for today we leave it here.

“Father, into your hands I commend my spirit’. Having said this, he breathed his last’.
 
Silence
 
Prayer
 
Living God, in death upon the cross,
Christ brought hope for the world.
In death upon the cross,
Christ won a victory over death
that we are invited to share.
In death upon the cross, Christ
became a mediator for us
who knows the darkness of human life
in this world.
In death upon the cross,
Christ takes the darkness of humanity,
and refashions it by grace.
For this we give you thanks and praise. Amen.
 
Hymn       When I Survey The Wondrous Cross        
Isaac Watts (1674-1748)
 
When I survey the wondrous cross
on which the Prince of Glory died,
my richest gain I count but loss,
and pour contempt on all my pride.
 
2  Forbid it, Lord, that I should boast,
save in the death of Christ, my God;
all the vain things that charm me most,
I sacrifice them to his blood.
 
3 See! from his head, his hands, his feet,
sorrow and love flow mingled down;
did e’er such love and sorrow meet,
or thorns compose so rich a crown?
 
4 Were the whole realm of nature mine,
that were an offering far too small;
love so amazing, so divine,
demands my soul, my life, my all.
 
Closing Prayer
 
Giver of life, we wait with you to offer the hope
that comes from the cross to earth’s darkest places.  Where pain is deep and affection is denied:  let love break through.
 
Where justice is destroyed,
let sensitivity to right spring up.
 
Where hope is crucified, let faith persist.
 
Where peace has no chance, let passion live on.
 
Where truth is trampled underfoot, let the struggle continue.
 
Where fear paralyzes, let forgiveness break through.
Eternal God, reach into the silent darkness of our souls with the radiance of the cross.
 
O you who are the bearer of all pain,
have mercy on us.
Giver of life,
have mercy on us.
Merciful God,
have mercy on us. Amen.

Thanks to Lorraine Webb, Marion Thomas, John Young, Christopher Whitehead, Ray Fraser, Sarah Wilmott, Graham Handscomb, Anne Hewling and Sylvia Nutt for reading various spoken parts the service.
 
There Is A Green Hill Far Away – Cecil Frances Alexander (1818-1895) (alt.) sung by the choirs of All Saints Church, Northampton
Ah, holy Jesus, how has thou offended? –  Johann Heermann (1585-1647) based on Latin meditation, 11th century paraphrased Robert Bridges (1844-1930) sung by the Grosse Pointe Memorial Church, Michigian, Virtual Choir.
O Sacred Head, Sore Wounded – Paul Gerhardt (1607-1676)  translated James Waddell Alexander (1804-1859) (alt.) sung by the Gesualdo Six
When I Survey The Wondrous Cross – Isaac Watts (1674-1748) BBC Songs of Praise
 
 

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